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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Adios, Luis Figo... FIFA Player of the Year 2001

I have only written about sports twice here. The reason is obvious to those who know me well (I hate all professional sports equally). The only exception I have made is for Luis Figo. When Luis Figo retired from international competition (Portugal's national team) I wrote an entry about how sad it was to see this knight of the soccer field fade away into retirement. Needless to say, my expectations of his retirement from professional competition had to wait an enjoyable stretch of four years that saw Figo leave Real Madrid for Inter Milan. Of course it was sad to see him leave Madrid, but the fact that he won 4 consecutive Italian league championships rather made up for it quite nicely. The Real Madrid Luis Figo left was an organization that had more interest in selling shirts and other merchandise than playing soccer; it all became a matter of globalization and merchandising for Real Madrid. All of this led, of course, to many other stars leaving Madrid eventually. For those of you who may only think of David Beckham when you hear the word "soccer" (or futbol), let me say here that in 2001 FIFA selected Figo as the Player of the Year, Beckham coming in a distant third (Raul Gonzales was second). David Beckham will never reach the levels of playing commitment Figo had for years before Beckham became a start. Let's face it, the numbers do not lie: Luis Figo was a better player in his prime (and even now). If Beckham wasn't so busy modeling, perhaps he could some day become FIFA Player of the Year.

At any rate, this is not about the British star, this entry is a tribute to the best soccer player of our generation! Luis Figo... the best, most courageous, determined, trust-worthy right fielder the game ever saw! Adios, Senor Figo... thanks for what are now the sweetest memories of your game!

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Cognition and Language: Eco Still Echoes of Nishida

I am still a long way from finishing "Kant and the Platypus" by Umberto Eco, and the reason behind it is my perverse habit of linking everything Eco writes about to Kitaro Nishida's study of "Pure Experience" in "An Inquiry into the Good." Their theories are linked by the idea that to experience something, whether or not for the first time, one must make sense of language first. At first this seems like a basic idea, until Eco explains the paradox of present tense and all the other goodies of how we construct meaning (cognition) from language. For example, if you've never seen a mouse, and you look up the definition in a dictionary, will you get an accurate appreciation of what a mouse is? The limitations of language notwithstanding, still with the pictures and not a language communicated categorical imperative, you might still be off target. The delicious "chicken-before-the-egg" equation of the entire book convinces me of 1) the importance of this reading, and 2) how enjoyable is to read Umberto Eco's non-fiction. Despite this I have had no time to devote to my reading because my teaching obligations. I will try to make up between June 9th and June 14th all of the time I haven't devoted to my reading list. At any rate, where these two excellent thinkers (Nishida and Eco) meet is where experience links us to the objects around us and how we make sense (cognition) of them. Eco explains the idea of Categorical Types and links everything quite nicely to Kant. Where things get really complicated is Eco's "diagnosis" of Categorical Types and schema. For example, a cat is a cat and that is one category. To the "untrained" eye, the fact that the cat is a Persian, or a Siamese, or a Tabby is irrelevant to how we communicate the idea of what type of cat is is. What Eco explains is how we make sense of language/cognition when talking about Categorical Types and experience. I am going to make a list of Eco's main points and tie them to Nishida (whose book I have been carrying around for this purpose for the last three weeks). I love making these connections.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Sad Farewell to Academia... (Part 01)

He came of age during the Great Depression, a mere "child" of 17. The following decade, he fought in Patton's 3rd Army and crossed the Rhine river under intense small fire arms and a barrage of heavy artillery that would make Hercules run away. Yes, this is the story of one of those many men who courageously saved this country from fascism and God knows what other evils the rhetoric of politics (now and then) wishes to ascribe to amazing feat of arms. He was an ordinary soldier of low rank. He blended in with the rest of the thousands of men. Of course, he knew his Chain of Command well, and respected it to his utmost sense of duty. He stood by General Patton during the controversy that threatened to undo the great General's accomplishments. Suddenly, and in what appeared a flash of destiny, the war in Europe was over. He hadn't expected it, really, after that treacherous hike up the boot of Italy and the disastrous mistakes of the Allies in Sicily. But by then he had lost track of time, and, when peace finally came in Europe, and like so many other soldiers in his unit, he felt lost, disoriented, useless and tired.

The Japanese surrendered as well, and it seemed to him at the time (1945) that the world had perhaps learned its lesson. He made good use of his G.I. Bill and enrolled in NYU in 1946. His mind was an open receptacle--all of the questions the war seemed to have ingrained in his mind were now finding--one by one--the answers he so desperately sought. From an Introduction to Philosophy he learned the various definitions of Justice. From "Meno" whether it was possible or not to teach virtue. This appeared as the most interesting of arguments to him. He thought of the Germans and Italians soldiers whom he had fought against, "Were they virtuous men?" He assumed that they had mothers and fathers, and that the family values of the German, Italian, and Japanese traditions were no better or worst than those of Americans. What he discovered in that first semester of school was the beauty of philosophy, its adaptability to life and its timeless message. Literature and writing, of course, also caught his attention. He read voraciously and scored high marks on his compositions. During the course of the summers and seasons that followed he did nothing but read--Classics, contemporary novels, poetry, philosophy. He grew and grew humanistically, spiritually and, more importantly, as a human being. All of his "wounds" from a war that now appeared so far away in the timeline of his young life began to heal. He was a new man. He was happy. He was full of purpose and his mind was lit with the lamp of knowledge. What better career path than to become a teacher, a professor... to help contribute to young people what was given to him by his own professors, and to them by their ancestors, and in the great line of scholarship and humanity where we are all the same... yes, he wanted to be a part of that greatest endeavour.

Graduate school was a delightful time. The more he studied, the more he fell in love with life. His mind had never known more peace, more love and faith, more passion. The months passed in such a pleasurable way that it was difficult to measure time in terms of hours and minutes and days or even months. The days of his life were a straight line of ideas, writings, inspirations, music, art, museums, preparation for the life of a teacher/philosopher. He graduated from Princeton University with a Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1956 and was immediately hired to teach at R..... College, dead-smack center of the American Midwest.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

An Unnecessary Rant about Education

My mood today is that of despair. Of course, I am not talking about despair generated by my students--those little lamps of bright light at the end of what is presently a very dark tunnel. What I am referring to is the generally accepted assumption that education reform works. Educators in general are simply telling each other what they want to hear. Educational reform has become a business and nothing more. Politicians call on privately owned companies to develop highly complex theories as to why children are not achieving standards. And that is precisely the problem. What does it mean to achieve a standard? It simply means that you can perform a task; simply put, it is little more than what trained monkeys do. SAT? ACT? Get on a cram program and you'll score higher/achieve more. The question being ignored, of course, is "Do you remember anything a week later?" "Did any of the material you studied touched you so deeply at a humanistic level that it literally transformed your life?" I don't have the answers to those questions, and I don't pretend to be the classroom cure for all the ills that plague the American education system. I am simply proposing that we need (and I mean desperately need) more people like Mark Edmundson and Anthony T. Kronman. Schools should be in the business of teaching virtue. If we can't teach to how become a better human being, how in God's name do we propose to teach better doctors, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, librarian, teachers, bankers, or real estate agents?

If you believe we fight wars in order to bring freedom and democracy to other countries, I've got a bridge to sell you. American domination (and here I don't mean to go off on a political critique of the former or present American governmental administration) around the world is designed for the purposes of spreading capitalism. How was the first crack on the Iron Curtain measured? A McDonald's in the middle of Moscow! How will we measure success in Iraq or Afghanistan? Perhaps a Walmart, K-Mart or Target department store could be used as a strong indicator of where our efforts have taken us in that part of the world. We have taught the rest of the world the worship of success and the lack of virtue that is necessary to flaunt "your goods." So, turning the argument back to education... how do you secure that you will dominate the capitalist sphere of influence? You turn educational institutions into vocational schools. Never mind that the Great Ideas have been taught throughout millennia, if they don't yield capitalistic results, they are not necessary in a curriculum designed to produce sharper, quicker, hungrier, and perhaps even more criminally-minded business people. Shakespeare has nothing to teach Bernard Madoff; he probably never learned a single lesson from Plato's "Meno" dialogue. Again, those are not "the things that are necessary right now." Don't teach Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway because the students can't identify with those novels. I am, however, appalled at how fast we give in to any book recommendation the head of Harpo Productions (Ms. Oprah, if you are not familiar) makes in her show. The publishers adore her taste in literature; authors jockey and elbow to have their books read by her. What people do not realize is that it is all a business, and those books being sold at alarming rates, and rocketed to the top of (yet another capitalist term) bestselling lists are not there because of the humanistic value of their content, but rather because some celebrity said "this book is very good." Again, I am not trying to convert anyone into socialism or, heaven forbid, communist ideas, but rather I am asking everyone to please examine if what is talking place today is not the triumph of capitalism/consumerism over academia and the great virtues of a humanistic education.

As an educator, I see every day how students devour any humanistic topic I bring up in class discussion. They really are "hungry" for the Big Questions. During a reading of "Crime and Punishment" this year, students did not want to move on to the next novel, they wanted to continue the discussion of Ubermensch and Will to Power and the Napoleonic ideas they so insightfully connected to present-day political and diplomatic issues plaguing the world. But "we don't need those..." what we need is more drill, drill, drill... better scores on standardized tests that will help the student get into a better university so she can "earn" a better degree and make a contribution to some large capitalist endeavour, without wasting a second to reflect on her value as a human being, a spiritually-driven individual whose concern should be to do good toward others. I believe that capitalism has finally triumphed over the last great stronghold that kept it at bay: the Academy.

I do have to apologize for some of my ideas. I didn't set out to write a scalding indictment against who (and what) we are as a country. I am, nevertheless, concerned, very concerned, mainly because I live this every day, and, little by little, I see how the small piece of influence I have over the young minds entrusted to me vanishes before my eyes. I am not saying that I want them to learn solely what I want to teach them. On the contrary, I want them to learn those things that transformed my life and the life of so many others before the world got too commercialized, technorized, capitalized, politicized. God help us all.

(Ps. My apologies for the earlier version... when I "said" rant, I meant it, and didn't stop to revise the many mistakes herein. Again, my apologies).

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